Weighing conservation easement repercussions
In the past few years, the impact of conservation easements put in place in the late 1970s and early 1980s have come home to roost.
One of Theodore Roosevelt's major interests during his presidential administration from 1901-1909 was public land. He learned a great deal about public lands from United States chief forester Gifford Pinchot.
But the president also studied natural history and learned from his travels as well as his love of ranching in the Dakota Territory that some land needed to be preserved for the good of future generations.
Roosevelt gave more energy to the problem of public land than any prior president. During his term, he set aside 150 million acres of public lands to protect the areas from exploitation by private interests.
Later, Roosevelt added another 85 million acres to the block in Alaska, Oregon and Washington to the public domain.
With the Reclamation Act of 1902, Roosevelt established irrigation services for the western United States.
Part of the irrigation plan involved building the Roosevelt Dam in southern Arizona.
Roosevelt's regard for natural resources was probably exceeded only by his interest in national defense.
Roosevelt was a practical man when it came to the western U.S., the region's water and the importance of private land.
But today's progressive conservationists or evironmentalists have gone far past Roosevelt's legacy.
Originally, many of the large groups of progressive conservationists fought for legislation to control problems in the environment.
During the 1970s, the groups started to purchase parcels in order to control the land. They found that if they bought the right kind of land in the right place, they could keep people who they thought endangered the environment from travelling to public lands they wanted to protect.
But the action proved expensive. In the end, the groups found other tools such as conservation easements and buying certain rights to public land .
A conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect resources, either natural or man-made, associated with the parcel.
Originally, the easements were set up for people to protect sensitive areas or agricultural land from large development. Owners must agree to the easements.
Once an easement is placed, it is almost impossible to undo and the restrictions placed on the parcels can be expanded.
The conservation easement business has become a huge undertaking with environmental groups and land trusts. Some specialty realty companies and law firms have grown up around the land movement as well.
In a conservation easement, there the owner of the property must first agree to place the restriction on the parcel. Then, there must be an agency that will control what happens with that easement in the future. The organizations are frequently government agencies or land trusts, often backed by environmental groups.
Examples abound. Two of the best known groups in the west are the Wildlands Project and Grand Canyon Trust.
Both organizations have lofty goals. But the goals are not specific to only the two groups.
The Wildlands Project goal is simple in explanation, but large in scope. The goal is to set aside approximately 50 percent of the North American continent as "wild land" for the preservation of biological diversity.
One of the principals in the project envisions an American continent where 95 percent of the land is put back to the pre-Columbian days.
Declining human populations and decreasing private land ownership will be required achieve the goal, which would take many generations.
The Grand Canyon Trust indicates the group's mission is "... is to protect and restore the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau - its spectacular landscapes, flowing rivers, clean air, diversity of plants and animals and areas of beauty and solitude."
"Without trying to solve the problem throughout the whole landscape, the Grand Canyon Trust has been successfully applying a different approach in carefully selected areas of exceptional importance," indicates the group. "The trust negotiates directly with willing ranchers to structure agreements in which either the ranchers are compensated for relinquishing their grazing privileges to BLM or the permits are sold directly to our non-profit grazing corporation."
"In the latter case, the grazing corporation offers to relinquish the permits to BLM if the agency concludes, through an appropriate public process (generally an Environmental Assessment), to amend its resource management plan to cancel grazing on the allotment. Any water rights associated with the grazing permits are transferred to the State Division of Wildlife Resources to be held perpetually for wildlife use," points out the group.
The policy is often placing the trust and the BLM against county and local residents, despite the fact that the group is working with particular ranchers in an area.
Last winter and spring, the situation exploded when the trust had requested that some grazing permits be retired in the Escalante-Staircase area. The group had spent $600,000 to acquire the rights from a spread located in the area.
Grazing proponents argued that organizations, individuals or groups cannot buy and then have the rights retired.
The Garfield County News carried in an article about the matter dated Feb, 26, 2003 and titled "Kane, Garfield County Commissions challenge BLM, Grand Canyon Trust."
The article quoted David Wolf, assistant Escalante-Staircase Monument manager, as pointing out that "retirement of a permit is a problem for (the BLM) because it's never happened in the past. A rancher giving back his privileges? This doesn't happen. Our grazing regulations don't cover it, and we've had incomplete guidance on how to do it."
Despite the protests of other local ranchers, livestock organizations and local government, Utah BLM office director Sally Wisely approved three environmental assessments that studied the Grand Canyon Trust's proposal to drastically reduce grazing on about 350,000 acres in the area.
Between finding ways to remove rights and conservation easements, the land trust groups have been working hard to change the American landscape.
How environment groups' actions affect local government and resident remains to be seen in some areas, but it has proven to be a problem in others.